Turkmenistan features one of Central Asias most repressive political systems, but cracks
in President Saparmurat Niyazovs authoritarian façade appeared in 2002. For much of
the last decade, Niyazov had been successful in crushing all domestic challenges to his
authority. However, several high-profile defections over the past year or so stung Niyazov, and
provided a large boost to exile-engineered efforts to oust the Turkmen leader. Niyazov responded
by carrying out a series of government purges, particularly in the countrys security
apparatus. These developments lent Niyazovs regime an air of vulnerability. The failed
attempt to assassinate Niyazov on November 25 served to heighten the possibility of a political
Officially known as Turkmenbashi Leader of the Turkmen Niyazov has likened himself
to a prophet, as well as to Turkeys great modernizer, Kemal Ataturk. Since Turkmenistan
gained independence, Niyazov has built a personality cult that evokes some aspects of the
Stalinist era. At the same time, the Turkmen leader has curtailed basic economic and political
rights, crushing any opposition and heavily censoring the media.
Throughout 2002, faults in the authoritarian system became evident. The National Security
Committee (KNB), successor to the KGB, which had previously been given carte blanche when it came
to enforcing Niyazovs wishes, themselves became the victims of purges throughout March and
April. One by one, those in KNB leadership positions, and even a few in Niyazovs innermost
circle, fell into disfavor and were dismissed. The purges continued through the fall.
Additionally, a number of high-ranking officials and business leaders fled the country over the
course of the year.
The personnel changes, combined with geopolitical shifts and several outrageous proclamations
including a decree renaming the months and days of the week have brought increased
international attention to the various Turkmen opposition groups.
The assassination attempt of late November responsibility for which has not been claimed
by any group, opposition or otherwise highlights the more public nature of the conflict
between government and opposition. Authorities state that they have incontrovertible proof of the
complicity of some members of the opposition. However, a number of exiled politicians, such as
Saparmurat Yklimov, who has been labeled a conspirator by the government, claim authorities
themselves orchestrated the assassination attempt to legitimize a crackdown on the opposition.
Early Independent Political Movements
In 1991, when the republics of the Soviet Union gained independence, Turkmenistan was the
strongest voice for maintaining the status quo, with 98 percent of the population voting to
remain part of the USSR. Niyazov, head of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan since 1985, was
subsequently elected president of the newly independent state. From the start, Niyazov shunned
reform, instead maintaining tight state control over the countrys civil life.
Organizations opposed to Niyazov emerged toward the close of Gorbachevs perestroika era.
In 1989, Nurberdy Nurmamedov, Babpa Gheoklen, Akhmuhamed Velsapar and other members of the
cultural elite created Turkmenistans first opposition movement, Agzybirlik. Like similar
groups in other former Soviet republics, this intelligentsia-led movement called for both
democratic reforms and cultural revival. After decades of state-sponsored Russification, they
appealed for the restoration of Turkmen as the countrys language and advocated a
revitalization of folk traditions. On January 12, 1990, Agzybirlik organized the
oppositions first significant political demonstration. Held in the town of Geok-Teppe, this
important symbolic gathering commemorated the 110th anniversary of the siege and defeat of the
Turkmen garrison there by Russian imperial forces.
In 1991, members of the Academy of Sciences created Paikhas. Led by Shokhrat Kadyrov, a
prominent historian and the countrys leading demographer, this group endeavored to promote
liberal ideas and initiate public discussion of politics. Also in 1991, Murad Salamatov, a
philosopher and journalist known as "the Sakharov of Turkmenistan," published the first
independent journal Dayanch.
Given the tradition of rule from above that dominated Turkmenistani and Soviet society,
grassroots support for these early opposition groups was limited, and membership consisted
primarily of representatives of the countrys learned elite. Meanwhile Niyazov courted
public opinion to a certain degree with a tough stance on crime and a pledge to
maintain state-subsidized food distribution.
From 1991 to 1993, various opposition groups conducted limited protests against the rapidly
entrenching Niyazov regime, including strikes, pickets, and attempts to introduce alternative
candidates during elections. Consolidating his power-base, Niyazov moved to suppress his critics
in the intelligentsia. Law enforcement officials arrested leading Agzybirlik figure Shirali
Nurmuradov on accusations of fraud October 1, 1990 and closed Salamatovs journal March 11,
1992. Many other dissidents were repeatedly taken into custody and questioned by the KNB.
Nurmuradov, Kadyrov, Velsapar, and other prominent dissidents felt compelled to leave the
country. Salamatov, Nurmamedov, and a few others remain in Turkmenistan. The former remains under
constant surveillance, while the latter, in an event reminiscent of the worst episodes of
Stalinism, was only freed from prison upon publicly repenting his opposition to the regime and
declaring his loyalty to Niyazov.
By 1993, the KNB had eliminated almost all traces of domestic opposition, and Niyazovs
personality cult had begun to take root.
Activity in Exile
Despite a common desire to bring about political change in Turkmenistan, ideological differences
helped keep leaders of the first wave of Niyazov opponents from unifying. Open protests or
attempts by those remaining in Turkmenistan to legally circumvent Niyazovs edicts were
quickly stamped out by the KNB. Those living abroad were limited to publishing anonymous letters
and articles for fear of reprisals.
By 1994, Moscow had emerged as the unofficial capital of Turkmenistans opposition, with
attention centered on the activities of Avdi Kuliev. Turkmenistans first foreign minister,
Kuliev left the government in 1992 in protest against Niyazovs policy decisions and
steadily increasing power. Upon arriving in Moscow, he founded the Turkmenistan Foundation, which
was the nucleus for the present-day Unified Opposition Movement of Turkmenistan (UOMT).
Throughout 1994-1995, the Turkmenistan Foundation gained momentum, bringing heightened attention
to Turkmenistans plight. Kulievs supporters talked eagerly of his triumphant return
to Ashgabat, and a real, if perhaps remote, possibility of the overthrow of Niyazov seemed to
Turkmenistans secret service, however, took measures to neutralize the threat posed by
Kulievs potential return. On October 28, 1994, Khoshali Garayev and Mukhamedkuli
Aitmuratov, Turkmenistan Foundation emissaries on their way to Ashgabat, were arrested in
Tashkent and extradited to Turkmenistan. Aitmuratov is still serving a long prison sentence for
his association with Kuliev, while Garayev died in prison in 1999 under circumstances deemed
suspicious by international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Memorial. In April 1998,
during Niyazovs official visit to Washington, Kuliev himself attempted a return to
Ashgabat, but was detained at the airport upon arrival and ultimately deported.
Opposition activity was limited from 1998-2001. In 1999, Niyazov restored the system of entry
and exit visas, according to which any person wishing to leave the country was required to apply
to the authorities for permission. In addition to restricting freedom of movement, this policy
made it difficult for Niyazov critics in exile to maintain ties with opponents inside the
country. Ultimately, Kulievs activities dwindled as his movement struggled in the face of
increased persecution of activists within Turkmenistan and a funding shortage.
The opposition began to reassert itself in November 2001, following the defection of Boris
Shikhmuradov, Turkmenistans Ambassador to China. Shikhmuradov, who had served as
Kulievs Deputy Foreign Minister and eventually replaced him, had been considered a staunch
Niyazov loyalist. A long-time member of the ruling elite and the architect of Turkmenistans
vaunted neutral status, Shikhmuradovs defection dealt a serious blow to Niyazovs
image of absolute ruler. Rather than align himself with Kuliev, however, Shikhmuradov soon
established his own opposition group, the Peoples Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan.
Within Turkmenistan itself, the opposition has effectively been silenced since the mid-1990s.
Occasional articles have surfaced, which many believe to have been written by Salamatov. A small
number of NGOs operate in semi-secrecy, struggling to keep their activities beyond the security
services notice. With such stringent limits placed on political activity, many
observers attention has turned to exiled political figures.
Shikhmuradovs defection polarized the opposition in exile, with most falling into two
distinct camps. Critics from the first wave of opposition émigrés regard
Shikhmuradov with suspicion, given his long association with and previous support for
Niyazovs regime. Many perceive him to be corrupt, or at the very least severely compromised
by his past. Avdi Kuliev remains the focal point for the first wave of opposition exiles.
Initially, Kuliev believed changes to Turkmenistans one-party rule would evolve naturally.
Thus, Kulievs Turkmenistan Foundation initially billed itself as an apolitical organization
representing the Turkmenistani diaspora in Russia. As the nature of Niyazovs rule became
clearer, however, Kuliev concluded that the development of a multi-party system could only be
accomplished through the creation of an extensive, vocal opposition movement to push for
By the time of Shikhmuradovs defection, Kulievs political stance had shifted from
moderate ethnic nationalism to a vaguer, social-democratic platform that allowed him to
effectively absorb various factions. In 1997 the Turkmenistan Foundation evolved into the UOMT, a
broad alliance of exiled groups including: the Russian Community of Turkmenistan, headed by
Anatoly Fomin, the Communist and Social-Democratic parties of Turkmenistan, and a number of
smaller groups. If Niyazov were to fall, Kuliev has stated that he would call for immediate,
internationally monitored elections. He has often stated his support for democratic principles
and a mixed economy of state and private property.
By many accounts, prior to leaving Turkmenistan Kuliev enjoyed strong popular support. His
fluent Turkmen and personal charisma endowed him with considerable backing in the smaller cities
and rural areas. However, Kulievs current appeal is extremely difficult to gauge, given
that he has been in exile for a decade, his funding restricted to grants from non-governmental
donors and human rights groups.
Shikhmuradov is a politician with more than twenty-five years experience in both the
Soviet and Turkmenistani diplomatic corps, primarily in Pakistan and India. He claims to have
been covertly opposing Niyazov since the mid-1990s, despite his high-profile government
positions. Shikhmuradov particularly disapproved of Niyazovs isolationist policies, and
says he was strongly opposed to Niyazovs decisions to close cultural venues such as
theaters, the ballet and the circus. On November 2, 2001, the Turkmenistani authorities brought
criminal charges of embezzlement and unlawful arms sales against the former foreign minister. He
left Beijing for Moscow the next month, moving on soon thereafter under threat of extradition.
In the months following Shikhmuradovs defection, a number of other high-ranking officials
joined his new opposition movement, leading Kadyrov to classify them as the "nomenklatura
opposition." The Provisional Executive Council of Shikhmuradovs movement claims
twenty-three members. The eleven publicly known members are former political and business figures
such as ex-Central Bank chief Khudaiberdi Orazov, former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmuhammed
Hanamov, and a number of other former diplomats and officials. The identities of the remaining
twelve members of the Executive Council are concealed, as they are purportedly still inside the
Shikhmuradov, a liberal pragmatist, publicly favors closer ties with the West and believes that
he and his supporters are more likely to attract support from the international community than
Kuliev. Like Kuliev, Shikhmuradov advocates democratic principles; however, in the event of a
regime change Shikhmuradovs group would declare an eighteen-month "transitional
period" in which no elections would be held. This would be a period of intensive economic
reform, involving the privatization of a number of state-owned industries. Despite accusations
that he used his governmental positions for personal enrichment, Shikhmuradovs platform is
popular with pro-Western intellectuals and educated youth in Ashgabat. He also claims to have the
support of many officials remaining in Niyazovs government that are allegedly fed up with
As interest in Turkmenistan increased this year, both Shikhmuradov and Kuliev have made active
use of the international press a likely explanation for Niyazovs recent crackdown on
non-Turkmen media. Russian newspapers are no longer distributed in the country, supposedly
because the country cannot afford them. Additionally, authorities are reportedly planning to
remove from peoples homes any satellite dishes capable of receiving Russian television
signals. At present, Radio Liberty continues to play an important role as one of the few
alternative opinions reaching the public. Kuliev has been particularly effective in reaching a
broader swath of the population via the Turkmen language service.
Many observers feel that the United States and Russia, two powers with some hope of influencing
Niyazovs behavior, have done little to pressure the Turkmenistani president into opening up
society. In spite of a history of documented human rights abuses, and the regimes
unofficial support for the Taliban, Niyazov has thus far silenced external criticism from both
states by playing his energy pipeline card. Russia wants Turkmenistans abundant natural gas
to be sent through its territory to the West, whereas the United States desires the pipeline to
go through Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, both countries have an interest in a stable
regime in a region already fraught with more than its share of unrest. The US decision on August
27, 2002 to increase technical assistance to the Turkmenistani Border Guards attests to the
importance of this task in the minds of US policymakers. While there may be cracks in the
regimes foundation, Niyazov has thus f!
ar been able to neutralize international pressure through a mixture of fortuitous placement and
However, Niyazovs balancing act may not last for long. American military action in
Afghanistan has sparked political processes in the region that may yet affect Turkmenistans
internal politics. This, paired with the element of unpredictability added by the recent
assassination attempt, may further complicate Niyazovs delicate position.
Increased Opposition Activity
Heightened attention to the region and Niyazovs increasingly repressive policies have
spurred the opposition to increase its activities. Both Shikhmuradov and Kuliev are of the
opinion that further steps can only be taken by moving the center of opposition activity into the
Although reluctant to speak openly about future plans, Kuliev is said to be working at
establishing reliable means of communication with groups of supporters inside the country. In
addition, the UOMT is attempting to distribute leaflets and copies of their journal on floppy
disks inside the country. Kuliev claims that the coordination of formerly isolated groups opposed
to Niyazov has improved in recent months. He hopes that the UOMTs activities inside
Turkmenistan, combined with pressure from Western countries, Russia and international human
rights organizations, will create conditions allowing the opposition to return.
Shikhmuradov, who had previously believed combined pressure from the nomenklatura within the
country and external pressure from the West would force Niyazov to step down, has since realized
the necessity of garnering the popular support. He and his supporters are presently looking for
ways to influence public thinking, and are hoping to organize protest actions to topple the
regime from inside. In late August, the Temporary Executive Council of Shikhmuradovs
organization decided to coordinate their eventual return to the country with members of the
Russian and Western media, in the hopes that such a group action would limit punitive measures by
Niyazov. Kuliev has long advocated similar strategies. However, Niyazovs visa-tightening
measures and newly implemented regulations since the assassination attempt requiring mandatory
interrogation of all foreigners entering the country could create serious obstacles to their
In addition to the Shikhmuradov and Kuliev camps, there reportedly are a number of less
prominent groups that have been jockeying for position, such as one led by former Deputy Prime
Minister Nazar Soyunov. In addition, another, less quantifiable, influence is that of the
narcotics cartels that control much of the drug trade that flows through Turkmenistan. Some
observers say traffickers have the necessary funding, and possibly other means in the form
of compromising information that can confirm allegations of government involvement in smuggling
operations to seriously damage Niyazov.
In June of this year, the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) and the Russia-based
organization Memorial convened a conference in Vienna concerning human rights abuses in
Turkmenistan. For the first time, members of the Turkmenistani diaspora were given an
international platform to raise human rights issues and make recommendations to the international
community. The dissident community had high hopes that both Kuliev and Shikhmuradov would appear
and present a unified opposition front. Kuliev attended, along with many of his supporters and
representatives of the various factions of the UOMT.
Despite the raised hopes and high turnout, Shikhmuradov did not appear at the Vienna conference,
citing security concerns. Although Kuliev and Shikhmuradov spoke by telephone, cooperation has
proven elusive. They initially agreed to establish a roundtable of democratic opposition forces
to create a common strategy for opposing Niyazov, but it now appears that Shikhmuradov has little
interest in aligning with Kuliev. (A follow-up meeting to the Vienna conference took place in
November in Moscow, again bringing together a broad array of human rights defenders and
opposition members, with the exception of Shikhmuradov and his representatives.)
Despite recognizing that a unified front would enhance their position, Shikhmuradov, Kuliev and
their supporters remain divided. The two groups have several substantial obstacles to overcome
before any talk of a merger can occur. Rivalries, mistrust, and competing visions continue to
keep the opposition movements apart. Given Niyazovs present crackdowns and their
anticipated intensification as the reaction to the assassination attempt gathers steam, neither
group seems likely to force him from power in the near future.
However, there have been a number of recent reports of civil unrest in the country in addition
to the November attempt on Niyazovs life, such as the October 10 distribution of
anti-government leaflets in the northern town of Dashoguz and the August 8 protests by women
outside a session of parliament. Both indicate that the general population, like the opposition,
may be entering a period of greater political activity. Such actions, combined with the constant
turnover of personnel in the most loyal departments of Niyazovs government (including the
March purges, which took down the Chair of the KNB, Muhammet Nazarov, and the September 10 firing
of his replacement, Poran Berdiev) give the opposition some hope. The recent assassination
attempt on Niyazovs life has already changed the political atmosphere inside the country,
but it is too soon to predict what influence this will have on the oppositions strategic